“Hard rock next,” Pete Townshend playfully barks near the half-way point of “Live at the Fillmore East 1968,” an extraordinary new archival release from The Who. “Haaaaard rock.”
What ensues, oddly enough, isn’t one of the guitarist’s own epic works, but a ragged hullabaloo version of Eddie Cochran’s “My Way.” For three minutes, the four members of the still-blooming British band rip thru the tune with a mix of pop jubilation and glorious electric immediacy that has long defined their music.
Mostly, though, “Live at the Fillmore East 1968” is a rock ‘n’ telegram from another time — another volatile time. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated only two days prior to the performance chronicled on this two-disc album. So what we have here is an astonishing document of a British band on the brink of stardom playing in a land beset by social unrest.
It summons a volcanic sound that falls between the efficient R&B-leaning pop preferences of The Who’s earliest days and Townshend’s more long-form compositions that would surface just over a year later in the form of “Tommy.” “Live at the Fillmore East 1968” comprises the entirety of the Who’s April 6 performance with the exception of the openers “Substitute” and “Pictures of Lily,” which were lost to recording glitches. As history goes, producer Kit Lambert shelved plans to release the tapes at the time and focused instead on “Tommy.”
But now, 50 years to the month after this performance was given, the record stands as something of a revelation. This is not a hits collection. Songs like “Tattoo,” with its three-part harmonies flying in the face of the band’s onstage turbulence, and the bizarre anti-smoking novelty “Little Billy” pepper the record’s first disc. But the real find is the 12 minute “Relax,” a total obscurity from the band’s then-current album “The Who Sell Out.” It begins with Townshend’s reminiscence of playing the Fillmore East’s previous incarnation as the Village Theatre (colored by a humorous expletive to describe it) before ripping through a terse, psychedelic jam. That is expounded upon wildly during a 33 minute version of “My Generation” that encompasses all of the album’s second disc.
The band quickly dispatches the primary composition quickly in order to detonate a fascinating, corrosive jam. Most instrumental runs of this length eventually resort to a drum solo. Not this one. This is all Townshend (with a little bit of lead from bassist John Entwistle) riding the electric waves of melody and mayhem for a full half-hour. While the irony of the well-quoted “Hope I die before I get old” chorus to “My Generation” has never been more luminous as it is here, given how this recording has spent the last half-century in the vaults, “Live at the Fillmore East 1968” emerges with a vitality undiluted by time. This is the sound of a very hungry Who on the brink of greatness.